Flames look toward HL tourney after losing 14-point lead
By Mike Pankow
February 28, 2018
After a stinging 88-81 loss to Wright State on Sunday at the UIC Pavilion, the Flames feel they learned some valuable intel on the league’s top two teams going into this weekend’s Horizon League tournament in Detroit.
“Now we have tape on the two best teams and we can go back watch what we made mistakes on,” said UIC senior center Tai Odiase, who had 10 points and five blocks. “If we handle business and we see them again, we know what to do next time.”
But first things first: The Flames will meet their neighbors to North in Milwaukee in the quarterfinals of “Motor City Madness.” Even though the Flames have won four of the last five meetings with the Panthers, Milwaukee won last year’s Horizon League semifinal.
Odiase and fellow senior center Clint Robinson were playing their final home games in a Flames uniform, as was sophomore forward Dikembe Dixson, who announced on social media after Friday’s game that he was leaving UIC.
Dixson played with a purpose, scoring a team-best 19 points on 6-for-13 shooting and 6-for-8 from the free-throw line.
“We’re not going to talk about that,” UIC coach Steve McClain said of Dixson’s announcement. “Those are things we’ll talk about after the season.
“(Dixson) came out energized, ready to go. I thought our whole team did.”
Sophomore point guard Tarkus Ferguson flirted with a triple-double with 13 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. Sophomore guard Marcus Ottey also contributed 13 points for the Flames.
Sunday’s loss put only a small damper on the strong turnaround this Flames team engineered when the calendar flipped to 2018. After a 5-10 start overall and 0-2 in conference games, UIC ripped through the meat of Horizon League play, winning 12 of 14 games before falling to NKU and WSU at home.
“I told this group of guys that I’m proud of them,” UIC coach Steve McClain said. “They’ve done a lot of things this year and they still have a lot to do that hasn’t been done in 15 years. As I told them, we’re not the game on the schedule anymore that everybody thinks they can win.”
The Flames ended the regular season at 17-14 overall and 12-6 in the Horizon and it looked like they were going to be 18-13 and 13-5 until the Raiders (22-9, 14-4) somehow rallied from a 14-point deficit and pulled off the victory.
UIC shot 65.6 percent in the first half and very little seemed to go wrong except some early foul trouble in which Robinson had three fouls while Odiase and sophomore bruiser Jordan Blount each had two fouls.
The Flames led 51-43 at halftime, but the tide turned when Blount, the Flames’ most aggressive defender, was whistled for two cheap fouls in the first 45 seconds of the second half.
UIC was then without its most physical player and it showed as the Raiders completed their unlikely comeback behind freshman center Loudon Love (23 points, 15 rebounds), senior sharpshooter Grant Benzinger (21 points, four 3-pointers) and rising freshman Everett Winchester (18 points).
“(Jordan is) a crucial part of what we do offensively and defensively,” McClain said. “There’s no question it hurt us not having him on the court. He played 10 minutes today, he averages 28 for us. It hurt us when Jordan went out, because … it changed how we were going to play.”
Once the Raiders took a 58-57 lead on Benzinger’s 3-pointer, the game became a seesaw affair.
Dominique Matthews drained a 3-pointer from the right elbow to give the Flames a 74-72 lead with 6:10 left. After Love scored on a layup for a 79-77 lead for the Raiders, Matthews countered with a pair of free throws to tie it at 79-79 with 3:21 left.
Wright State senior Mark Hughes provided the answer with a 3-pointer for an 82-79 lead. After Dixson scored on a follow shot to cut the deficit to one, Odiase blocked Love inside, but Love got the ball back. Benzinger then missed a 3, but Cole Gentry grabbed the long rebound, leading to a clutch jumper by Winchester for an 84-81 Raiders lead with 1:08 remaining.
After a Tarkus Ferguson turnover, Winchester buried another short jumper – the dagger – for an 86-81 lead with 20.2 seconds to play.
Although the Raiders aren’t built to run and play come-for-behind basketball, McClain heaped praise toward WSU coach Scott Nagy’s players.
“He’s got good athletes,” McClain said. “They don’t necessarily play that way, but they can. I’ve seen them do it. That didn’t surprise me. Our plan was to make this game as fast as we can make it.”
Early on, the Flames’ offense was on point.
Dixson hit a 3-pointer for UIC’s first points at the 18:40 of the first half and his layup off a steal put the Flames up 14-6 less than four minutes into the game.
The Flames kept stretching their lead as Ottey closed an 11-1 run with consecutive layups for a 47-33 lead with 3:43 left in the first half.
“We knew Wright State was going to come in and play tough,” Odiase said. “At the end of the day, we had the lead and we made mistakes.”
UIC has matured a lot since the end of December and is considered among the favorites to come out of “Motor City Madness” with a championship.
“I know we didn’t win the game, but I see so much growth with this team that it gets me excited to go to Detroit,” McClain said
FLAMES FLICKERS: In the postgame press conference, McClain gushed about the accomplishments of Odiase and Robinson, mentioning in particular how Odiase didn’t leave the program when McClain replaced Howard Moore three years ago. … UIC’s third-place finish in the Horizon League was its best since the 2003-04 squad ended up in second before winning the conference tournament. … For the second straight season, the Flames had a better record on the road in the conference than at home. This season UIC was 7-2 away and 5-4 at the Pavilion. Last season the Flames were 4-5 on the road and 3-6 at the Pavilion. … Sophomore guard Godwin Boahen now has hit at least one 3-pointer in 13 straight games. … The Flames blocked 11 shots, the most since they had 11 against Youngstown State on Jan. 18. UIC’s season high of 12 came against Wisconsin-Parkside on Dec. 6. … Blount’s 10 minutes were a season low, because of his foul trouble. … Sunday’s loss was the first when UIC led at the half this season. They were 14-0 previously. … Before the game, Odiase, Robinson and manager Mike Kelly, who was a member of the active roster late last season because of injuries, were honored as part of “Senior Day” festivities.